Focus on… is a new series where we explore and examine topics related to Diamonds past and present – brought to you by our writing team. In the first edition of our new series, Joseph McCormack examines the role that midfielder Jesse Akubuine played during the 2019/20 season.
Throughout Rushden’s charge to play-off contention in 2019/20, Andy Peaks used Jesse Akubuine as the attacking midfielder in his 4-2-3-1. This slight tweak to his original 4-3-3 system proved to be a catalyst for change in the second half of the campaign.
Heading into 2020, Diamonds were seven points adrift of the top five. They had played the same amount or more games than three of the five sides perched in those prized positions. Two months on, when the season was expunged, they sat just four points outside the top five with up to three games in hand on teams in those play-off places. Despite being 11th in the table, Peaks’ side would’ve broken into the play-offs, albeit briefly, have they had won their final game at Banbury.
Common terminology often associated with non-league football includes ‘channels’ and ‘second balls’ and the experienced Andy Peaks values the importance of these terms when setting up his side. The Diamonds manager knew that the basics of football were going to hold the key to a successful end to the season.
Whereas the generic attacking midfielder is renowned for their creativity and guile, Jesse thrives off energy, anticipation and spatial awareness – making him the perfect foil for the No.10 role in Peaks’ side.
Jesse’s adept understanding of space allowed him to anticipate where the ball was going to drop in both offensive and defensive transitions.
Diamonds would often play out to their full backs and hit the line, frequently through Sam Brown who used his experience to judge the flight of his kicks. Nabil Shariff, a player who Jesse developed a good partnership with, would contest for the aerial ball. Regardless of whether Nabil won the ball or not, Jesse would ensure he was in the right place to pick up any loose balls.
When Diamonds were in possession, we often saw Jesse latching onto the play beyond Shariff’s flick-ons by roaming beyond his teammate to become a nominal striker. This can be identified in Diamonds’ 3-1 victory over Barwell. Shariff flicks an aerial ball onto Greg Kaziboni who slotted it into the path of the onrushing Jesse Akubuine to score the opening goal. The interchanging movements of the forwards is difficult to track – as it proved on this occasion.
In situations closer to the penalty area, where space in behind was limited, Jesse would stay in the pockets and feed off any knockdowns – highlighted by his goal in the 4-2 win over Stratford. As the visitors failed to clear the ball in their own box, Jesse capitalised as he picked up the ball on the edge of the area and found the back of the net.
If the opposition tried to build up possession, Jesse would look to occupy his opposing man in midfield and eliminate a pass through the lines. If a central defender stepped out with the ball, he would put them under pressure as he looked to overturn possession for a quick transition.
Against opponents looking to attack more directly, he would drop off and support the double pivot behind him to compact the centre of the pitch – effectively creating a flat midfield three. In doing so, Diamonds would have more numbers back to deal with balls towards their box.
Jesse’s consistent performances saw him scoop consecutive Player of the Month awards for December and January. He was an integral element of a Diamonds side which took six wins from a possible nine in the first two months of 2020.
With the curtailment of the season, we’ll never know if Diamonds were genuinely mounting a play-off charge. However, Jesse Akubuine’s new role, alongside tricky wingers and combative midfielders, allowed Andy Peaks to build a side which generated some real momentum.
Jesse is a shining light from the beacon of young Diamonds talents. At the age of 23, his best years are still to come and his current performances have offered us a sprinkle of hope and a glimpse into the future.